Experiencing positive discrimination in the workplace
this is the second of a pair of autobiographics heavy pieces, trying to pin down some of my experiences of socio/educational class at work. the first is about my formative first experience of a capitalist workplace aged 18.
Part Two – hierarchy and class in schools.
After uni I decided to apply for Teaching Assistant jobs. I applied for about 20 without getting an interview. Then I got an interview, in which the headteacher asked me with concern, ‘Do you know what you’re going to be paid? Are you sure you want the job?’. I convinced her that actually there weren’t that many graduate jobs that I was keen on doing, and I got the job.
I found it hard. There were lots of routines, most of which weren’t written down. I felt like I knew too little, but also, conscious of the contrast of my educational background to the T A s alongside me, had reservations about asking for formalised, teacherly knowledge about the kids. And there was no time. I was supporting 16-19yrolds with their learning, having no idea myself about what they were capable of, what specific barriers to learning they had. My awareness of this, and my level of aspiration to facilitating effective learning, made me uncomfortable to a degree which inhibited my chances of learning how to communicate intuitively, and learn the ‘language’ of the less verbal students.
After a few weeks I got a meeting with the deputy head to check if I was fully inducted, and if there were any problems. I took it as a springboard to discuss everything which was problematic in the school, which I saw as a lot, with a big focus on lack of communication and transmission of information (to me as a T A). Hearing other T As referring to their performance review meetings, I realised how I had interpreted it within an incredibly entitled framework. Nothing happened from that meeting, but the headteacher continued to take a bit of a special interest in me. She seconded me to a primary school as a keyworker, out of interest in my professional development as much as that I was not too settled and so wouldn’t object, I suspect. Then, when in my secondment it suddenly emerged that they had massive problems with my insubordinate attitudes, she had my back. She placed me with teachers who were keen to value their teaching assistant’s inputs. In one class I was alongside a man, who was the sort of straight, confident, masculinity that abounds at Oxbridge, which I avoid like the plague. And he was popular, with his heteronormative banter, and his good looks, and total lack of self consciousness. He left after two terms to work for a multinational minerals company abroad somewhere.
My class-self-consciousness is something which layered with my already existing social awkwardness at that school. In the staffroom I was stuck between teachers and teaching assistants – an experience common to many graduate teaching assistants, who are teacher-like by demographic, but at the same time are not teachers. I never said where my degree was from unless I was directly asked. And . . . I saw how the non-striking union ‘Voice’ poster was put up, overlapping the Unison/NUT poster, in case anyone was unclear about the fact that management wasn’t really into strikes. I saw how being paid hourly, and not being listened to, and being given initiative after initiative to fit into the day makes hard-working, caring people work to the clock as a matter of self defence. Meetings which could be productive became burdens on time, extra minutes before we could go home. Top down targets, squeezed into a lack of time and resources in the day, make people do activities regardless of whether they make any sense, and so . . . many are done in a task focussed way which may or may not have any positive value for the child/student concerned. And the T As who work with the kids all day aren’t stupid. We all have critical thinking skills, and a pretty good awareness of the young people’s needs, but little space to exercise those skills. Teachers become control freaks, because they’re responsible, but then they make things happen which sometimes make sense, and sometimes make no sense at all. My bourgie intelligentsia background made me see this. But my role meant that I experienced how little I could do with it, and just how much it was structurally determined that my colleagues accepted it, knowing that to pursue questions was a waste of energy.
Now I am training as a teacher, and one of the aspects I feel deeply ambivalent about is that I am taking up my middle-class mantle. I hope and aspire to find strategies to make the class-based hierarchy in schools less bad, rather than worse, with whatever capacity I have to do so. I don’t know what that looks like, but I know a bit more about what it is not than I did a few years ago.